After guiding her country through an historic 70-year reign spanning 14 US presidents and 15 Prime Ministers, QueenElizabeth II has earned her rest.
The Queen was the ultimate matriarch, with a power exercised quietly and artfully
For once, the opening lines of WH Auden’s poem Funeral Blues seem to fit the moment. Like it or not, much of public life will grind to a halt in the black-tied days of mourning ahead, as broadcasters suspend their schedules and a state funeral is prepared.
However long it may have been gently anticipated, the death of the longest reigning monarch in British history is a significant and unsettling moment in a nation’s life. And never more so, perhaps, than when it coincides with the arrival of a new prime minister amid an emerging economic crisis. There was something terribly poignant about her insistence, even in what we know now were her dying days, on personally ushering Liz Truss into office.
The Queen has been a constant, steadying presence in the background of millions of lives for 70 years, a reassuring voice in troubled times. But it is the depth of knowledge accumulated over decades that may perhaps only be fully appreciated now. That benign, grandmotherly manner belied a keen and occasionally caustic intelligence.
Hers was a form of female power exercised so artfully as to be almost invisible. The sweeping nature of the constitutional powers she held – to dissolve parliament, or withhold consent from legislation – were tolerated within a modern democracy precisely because they were sparingly used. She helped shape and guide governments through her weekly audiences with 14 previous prime ministers, who all took their turn at stepping gingerly past the sleeping corgis lining the way to her study at Buckingham Palace.
But her political leanings went with her to the grave. The closest she perhaps strayed to expressing an opinion publicly was during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, when she told well-wishers outside a church service that Scots should think very carefully about their vote. Even then, the palace was furious when David Cameron was overheard revealing that she had “purred down the line” when told that Scotland had voted to stay.
The Queen pulled off the rare trick for a woman of exercising profound influence without inciting a backlash, in part because the scope of that influence remained so shrouded in mystery. She did not so much normalise the idea of a woman in charge as make the nation largely forget that that was what she was, while retaining the ability to freeze grown men with a look.
As Tony Blair noted in his autobiography, describing a G8 summit dinner of world leaders where some were evidently fooled by the relaxed atmosphere: “You don’t get matey with the Queen. Occasionally she can be matey with you, but don’t try to reciprocate, or you get The Look.”
When she made a point of her gender – as she rather fabulously did in 1998, electing to chauffeur the visiting Saudi crown prince around the Balmoral estate personally in her Land Rover at a time when Saudi women were not allowed to drive – the gesture of female solidarity was all the more striking for being so rare.
She treated feminism largely as a political issue on which she remained neutral, while granting her daughter-in-law Camilla intriguing licence in recent years to speak out on issues such as domestic abuse or the normalisation of sexual violence against women.
But if she was no feminist icon, she became perhaps the ultimate matriarch, a word denoting not merely a position within the family but a very specific life stage.
Princess Elizabeth was only 25, and her children Charles and Anne three and one respectively, when her father’s death in 1952 catapulted her into the all-consuming role for which she had been groomed since childhood, but never expected to assume so soon.
Any private maternal regret over those early years of weighty expectations and long overseas trips perhaps expressed itself in her determination to let Prince William enjoy time with his young children before assuming the working load of a future heir, and in her evident delight in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Queen had grown obviously frail of late, particularly after the death of her beloved Duke of Edinburgh, yet the sense of time running out if anything intensified her moral authority.
Advised by doctors to rest rather than attend the Cop26 climate conference in 2021, there was a quiet urgency to the video message she sent in her place. “We none of us live for ever,” she said, a photograph of her late husband beside her. “But we are doing this not for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children.” Stop the clocks indeed.